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Research Software Development


Reliability, readability, and efficiency in scientific software



Jonathan Cooper28 September 2018

Back in early September was the third edition of a series of conferences dedicated to Research Software Engineering.

It’s like the national meetings that exist for numerous disciplines, but to talk about us: our community and career paths, ways to serve the research community better, tools and techniques for better software, among others. As expected, almost the whole Research Software Development Group (and Ian Kirker from Research Computing!) attended the conference.

This year’s conference was really important for us: the conference started with a keynote by our very own Prof. Eleanor Robson of UCL Archeology, who talked about Oracc, the longest project our group has been involved in since its creation, including a couple of demos of the tools we have created for writing translations of cuneiform texts. We had Ilektra Christidi in the organizing committee, who also co-organized and co-chaired the international session, a lively event where RSE’s from around the world exchanged views and experiences from the communities of their countries, and discussed about cross-country initiatives and collaborations. Tom Dowrick – our affiliated team member – gave a talk about using the Robot Operating System to create a reproducible platform for surgical device development.

As usual, there were interesting workshops and talks from researchers, RSEs and representatives of big industry players alike. We especially enjoyed the workshops about singularity; JupyterHub + kubernetes; lean tools for product development; and parallelizing python applications. Talk highlights covered building computer vision systems by Microsoft Research; why making scientific software sustainable is difficult; GUI’s and visualization; lessons from CASTEP on rebuilding legacy software; and an entertaining and enlightening presentation from Catherine Jones (STFC) on how to shut down services gracefully – something we’ll be putting into practice as we deprecate our local Jenkins service in favour of the national service STFC are now piloting.

There was also exciting news for the future of RSE in the UK, with the announcement of a new registered society due to be launched soon. And we are excited to have struck up an agreement with the Software Sustainability Institute to collaborate with them on analysing their international survey results – more news on that in the coming months!

Our group head Jonathan Cooper attended several sessions looking at different aspects of managing RSE groups, as well as having many stimulating discussions with other RSE group leaders. There was a helpful workshop on inclusivity and diversity in RSE recruitment, discussing everything from wording of adverts to structure of interviews – and indeed how we maintain a welcoming culture within our team. UCL is doing well in so far as we have 6 nationalities within the team, 40% of our senior team female, and have put together majority-female interview panels, but there is no room for complacency. We’ll be looking at what outreach we can do to demonstrate what a great career path RSE is for all people. A panel session with RSE group leaders highlighted that all RSE groups across the UK face much higher demand for their services than they can match with current staffing levels, and so training the next generation of RSEs will be crucial.

A funders’ perspective from Susan Morrell (EPSRC) and David Carr (Wellcome Trust) underlined again the increasingly heavy dependence of UK research on software development, and hence the need for RSEs. Wellcome’s emphasis on open research was particularly encouraging. Also of interest here was an ARCHER study showing a 3:1 return on investment for their eCSE programme, which provides RSE support to researchers using national HPC resources. In another session we thought about ways in which RSE groups can benefit the wider community: not just delivering projects which benefit the researchers involved directly, and ensuring these tools are usable by others, but contributing to underpinning open source projects on which many researchers depend.

All in all, enough technical and social activity – a good warm up as term begins and we resume our regular activities, like drop-ins, Tech Socials, and coffee mornings!